Do Libraries Steal From Authors?

May 27, 2011

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When I was a kid, I was a very frequent visitor at my school and public libraries.  I have always loved to read, and what a great deal – free books!  Truly a wonderful thing.

As I have gotten older and become an author myself, I have been plagued with doubts.  Are libraries actually stealing from authors by minimizing the value of the author’s intellectual property?  The logic is pretty basic – if you check out a book from the library instead of buying it, the author isn’t making any money from you.  From a financial perspective, authors would much prefer that every buy new copies of their books and keep them in their personal libraries – never setting foot in a public library or used book store, and never lending out any of your books.

Although I actually have a large personal library (around 600 books), I don’t even maximize revenue for my favorite authors.  I buy a majority of my books used – meaning that the money goes into the secondary market rather than back to the author and publishers.  However, at least I do not “churn” book – buying them used and then trading them in a short while later.  Books that enter my home, for the most part, stay there (although I do share some of them with co-workers) – so I’m basically taking them out of circulation.

For printed books, the revenue impact of libraries is minimized somewhat by the fact that books wear out over time – after a certain number of readings, the book needs to be replaced.  However, this is not the case with eBooks.  The bytes do not degrade over time – the text will look every bit as good the 100th time a book is read as it did the first time.  HarperCollins received a lot of negative publicity for imposing a limit of 26 checkouts for their eBooks.  After 26 checkouts, a library would need to purchase another copy of the book.  Essentially, what HarperCollins is going is having a license that deteriorates in the same manner as a physical copy of a book.

Is HarperCollins being fair?  Let’s think this through and use an extreme example.  Let’s say that a library purchases a hardcover copy of the 50th anniversary one volume edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  The cost of that 1178 page book is currently $25.08 on Amazon.  At the same time, the library purchases the Kindle version for $18.99.  Twenty years from now, the library will have replaced the hardcover copy many times – earning revenue for the publisher and author each time.  However, without the artificial limit imposed by HarperCollins, the library would have only needed to purchase one copy of the eBook.  The cost per reading of the eBook would be far less than for the hardcover – much more enjoyment per dollar.

I’m OK with HarperCollins imposing limits.  It seems fair to compensate the author and publisher on a per-reading basis. Granted, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, since the marginal cost of an eBook is far less than a printed book, due to the fact that the printed book is a physical item that must be manufactured and shipped.  Without some sort of expiration on an eBook license, a publisher could see their sales completely cannibalized by people who check out the eBook from their library without leaving their couch.  That’s a dangerous business model for publishers.

I’m siding with the publisher on that issue – but where do I stand on the question of whether or not libraries (and by extension, used book stores) rip off authors and publishers.


In the end, I do think that libraries serve as a marketing vehicle for authors and publishers.  How many of us discovered our favorite authors on the shelves of a library, and then ended up buying future works by the author?  I’ve discovered some authors that way, and other via borrowed books from friends.  Eventually, I amassed a rather large collection of my own books, as a way to ensure that I always had an interesting assortment of books to read, and prefer not to be constrained by the time limits of the library (life can get busy at times, and it’s not always possible to finish a book quickly).

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